The following is from an email I received from a young man in response to my series of posts on Women in Combat:
I recently read a historical article discussing the "Titanic" and men who survived versus women who survived. This article mentioned that men who survived were often shamed for life for not dying. I am wondering what is your take on the concept of "women and children first" is? My thoughts are the following:
1. Why do I simply because of my gender have a duty to die so that women and children may live? In my opinion, that sounds as philosophically sane as blacks must pick cotton so whites may enjoy life.
2. Why does every woman and every child simply by age or gender have more of an inherent right to life than me? In my opinion, all people have an equal right to life. Additionally, since I have very poor athletic skills, I might need more help in a rescue situation than some basketball playing teenagers or some very athletic women.
My take on the Titanic? I very much approve the notion that the stronger should allow the weaker to go first, and I applaud the bravery of those men on the Titanic who sacrificed themselves for others. If these men had not been willing to die, we might have had the morally revolting spectacle of the largest, strongest people trying to save themselves by knocking aside the small and the weak.
The problem, of course, is to determine who is strong and who is weak. Traditionally, it was assumed that "women" were automatically among the weak who had to be protected. This assumption, however, is problematic for two reasons: (1) women are not necessarily "the weak" and (2) "women and children first" is sometimes used to justify women's subordinate status in society.
Sex as a proxy for determining who is strong and who is weak is woefully inadequate. I may be physically weaker in many respects than most men my age, but I am certainly stronger than an elderly man or a man with a disability. (And, if it's an issue of who can run the fastest for a long distance, I'd challenge most men my age to a road race, thank you very much.) Also, depending on the circumstances, I may even be stronger than the most strapping young man-- if I have a gun for example, or if I have a boat and the young man is drowning, as in the story I told here. (Of course, for the writer of the email, I am not sure that merely having poor athletic skills is sufficient to qualify you as "weak"! Sorry!)
Everyone, male or female, should be taught the virtues of self-sacrifice in emergency situations. I have every intention in any emergency situation to see to the safety of my husband (who has a severe disability) before I see to my own safety. As a fit and childless woman in my prime, I feel that I would have had a moral duty to ensure the safety of the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the very young before my own safety on the Titanic. Although I have never been in a situation calling for great physical courage, I believe that by imagining such situations and deciding now what I would do, I will be able to act appropriately if such a situation were ever to arise.
Of course, one advantage of the "women and children" first formulation is that it is an easy proxy for determining in an orderly way who should be saved first and who should stay behind. Without that formulation, it would become easy for the cowardly to rationalize pushing aside the little old lady. Another issue is whether children who are rescued should be accompanied by a parent and, if so, which parent. Of course, I think that such situations, in which only some people can be saved while others must die, are very rare. The men of the Titanic would not have had to sacrifice themselves if there had been enough lifeboats.
The disadvantage of the "women and children first" formulation is that it is often bandied about to justify the subordination of women. I have heard people argue that "women and children first" is a perk women will have to give up if we want equality. It is noteworthy that Doug Phillips, the head of a Christian Reconstructionist organization known as Vision Forum Ministries, which advocates restructuring society as a "Biblical Patriarchy," has also founded a society known as the Christian Boys' and Men's Titanic Society. In the context of the ideology of "Biblical Patriarchy," it appears that this group is meant to justify and to glorify the leadership role the male half of our species would enjoy in his ideal society. It makes me think of how my father cooked dinner a quarter of a century ago when my mother was bedridden after surgery and even now he keeps saying, "See, I do a lot for this family . . . remember that time I cooked dinner?" The thing is that situations like the Titanic don't crop up in the ordinary course of things and therefore simply can't be used to justify the unequal status of half of the human race.
Sometimes men are in a better position, by virtue of sheer upper body strength, to rescue people from burning buildings and such, but there are plenty of heroic women, too -- women in combat, women police officers, ordinary women who act with extraordinary bravery when the situation calls for it. I simply don't see "women and children first" as a formulation that works anymore. On the other hand, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: so for now, I am hoping that the ideal of the strong protecting the weak will work in whatever situations I and my fellow human beings find ourselves in.
(NOTE: One problem that also arises when one considers the notion of chivalry is that often chivalry was applied to the benefit of upper class women but not at all to the peasantry. I am not an expert on the Titanic disaster and I do not know how the poorer women and children were treated on the Titanic. For the purposes of this post, I have assumed that poor women and children were saved as well.)
UPDATED: I want to direct readers to the fantastic comments below. Dave, our naval expert, from the The Galloping Beaver explains more about the current protocol for evacuating ships. Ginmar and Dave also point out that being saved during an isolated emergency situation would not make up for the fact that, at the time of the Titanic disaster, women did not have the vote and were treated as second class citizens in every way.